WE HEAR a lot about the "marriage penalty. " But what about the "gay penalty"?

Yes, the 1,400 benefits that same-sex couples don't have. The ones that help streamline the household economies of every heterosexual married couple in the nation.

Every word that is said about gay marriage insults or offends someone, on one side of the fence or the other. Social and cultural conservatives believe their sense of morality is under attack. Gays and liberals believe they are simply defending - and demanding - basic human rights.

Democrats know the potential damage this wedge issue can do during the fall, and they respond to Republican attacks with lukewarm nuances that please no one. Like every other chapter in the Culture Wars, the rules of engagement on the gay marriage issue are simple. If popular opinion is on your side, incite emotions. If you're trying to defend something you think is right, but unpopular, obfuscate and beat around the bush.

It's clear there will be no consensus on the moral and religious issues surrounding gay marriage any time soon. It will probably take decades to fade into history, like the hysteria about interracial marriage, which lasted for more than 50 years and was finally disposed of by the courts. Who remembers now?

Maybe skipping the moral questions on gay marriage and just dealing with the kitchen-table issues can take the noise level of the Culture Wars down a notch. After all, the question involves real lives, hopes, dreams and children. There are hundreds of thousands of same-sex households across the U.S., and many of them involve kids.

The financial questions raised by gay people's ineligibility for those standard benefits is where discrimination comes in. And the more I think about it, the more I think it's time to face facts.

We discriminate. We tell people who fall in love and want to build a life with someone of the same sex that they are not eligible for the 1,400 benefits that a heterosexual married couple can get in the blink of an eye. We are not only refusing same-sex partners a basic right to happiness, but we are forcing them to pay a penalty, out of their pockets, for being gay.

Call it the "gay penalty. "

The cleverest same-sex partners are able, through hard work and lots of shopping, to patch together a minimal security net that protects them and their children (often those no one else wants).

They have to focus on each benefit, one at a time, come up with a strategy and often work for years to get them.

But if they were to pretend to love someone of the opposite sex, and get married by a justice of the peace in a two-minute ceremony, they would immediately be eligible for the 1,400 benefits, from joint filing for taxes to joint insurance, to annuities, pension plans, Social Security and Medicare, and status as next-of-kin for hospital visits and medical decisions.

Married heterosexuals, far from paying a penalty, receive a discount for sporting their wedding rings. Single gay people who pay taxes and participate in the same network of services fundamental to every U.S. household pay more, even if they're part of a household with kids.

They pay more, and their higher payments subsidize the rest of us, from taxes to insurance.

Civil unions, if recognized from state to state, would give a same-sex couple only about 350 of the 1,400 benefits available to a married couple. Who would settle for just a quarter when everyone else gets the whole pie?

How can we argue that gay partners don't deserve the same safety net that protects every American family? How can we penalize children by withholding benefits that would make a family economy flow more smoothly?

The only argument against it is the supposedly moral one, so let's confront it head on.

Is it OK to be gay? As a society, in spite of all the noise, we're heading in the direction of saying "yes. " So it's time to get real, be fair and give same-sex couples access to every benefit that every American man and wife enjoy. *